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In the aftermath of the UK’s historic decision to leave the European Union, it might be expected that Brexit would dominate the results of an in-depth report on recruitment and retention in higher education.

However, the results of the latest UCEA and HEFCE Workforce Survey 2017 indicate that the EU referendum result has had a limited impact to date on Higher Education institutions’ (HEIs) ability to recruit and retain staff at this stage.

Rather than Brexit, it is the domestic labour market that is causing pressing problems for HEIs, particularly the high level of competition for information technology (IT) talent. According to the survey, the proportion of HEIs experiencing trouble recruiting to IT has almost doubled in the last four years to 62%.

Difficulty recruiting in other professional services areas – such as estates, marketing, HR and finance – has also increased.

Workforce chart

Why is recruitment difficult?

The most common reasons for the recruitment difficulties were lack of required skills or expertise and lack of applicants.

With high risks to network security exposed by a large scale cyberattack on NHS trusts this year, and shifts towards active blended learning for students, the sector must compete for world class IT talent.

Likewise, the upkeep and renewal of the 14,270,000m2 HE estate requires the recruitment and retention of a wide range of highly skilled occupations which are in high demand across the UK.

Pay is a factor in some of these recruitment hotspots but local availability of skills, sector perception and workforce culture also play key roles.

How are HEIs rising to the recruitment challenge?

In response to these recruitment difficulties, some HEIs have been building their employer brand, working with advertising partners and differentiating themselves within the competitive market.

This effort and investment is, in part, a response to a perception that the institution is not seen as an employer of choice in its labour market.

To quote one HR leader from the survey:

“Although we are one of the medium to biggest employers, we are not seen as such. We are predominantly seen as a place of study … so how do you switch that on to somebody with that mind-set?”

Active recruitment through social media and recruitment agencies has also been important for HEIs in a tight labour market as they expand their reach to attract highly skilled staff, in both academic and professional services roles.

As explained by one interviewee:

“We are just reaching out rather than just doing the same adverts on the usual sites. We have also started to make sure we have a regular presence in the Times Higher. Even though there might not be that many jobs going, we still do an advert so that people know that we are still there and retaining our brand profile.”

The impact of Brexit

Regarding Brexit, it is clear from the 2017 Workforce Survey (and previous UCEA surveys) that the emotional impact is high: ongoing uncertainty as to the future status of EU staff is having a damaging impact on morale.

However, there has not (yet) been the dramatic effect on the academic workforce in terms of numbers that some expected.

No institutions reported a significant negative impact on their ability to recruit staff from the EU. And only one responding HEI reported a significant negative impact on its ability to retain EU staff.

Becoming an employer of choice

So the challenges for HEIs are not neatly divided between international and domestic.

The report demonstrates that sector employers are having to do more to improve their attractiveness to top talent – in IT and other areas – through improving the perception of HE as a place to work, adapting their reward approaches, growing their own pipelines and delivering attractive working environments.